My wife and I live year-round on Martha’s Vineyard now, except for trips south to warmer places in January and February; I haven’t been back to Chicago in years. Neither of our children lives there nor any other blood relations nor close friends. My wife is from the East and never did have ties to the city. I hear it’s still a vibrant place, well worth visiting. But at 80, and my wife 75, we don’t even get into much-closer Manhattan very often these days and the kids bring their families here from Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
But Chicago shaped and nurtured me and I left a story there many years ago I think it’s time to relate before one day, perhaps not so far off, I simply won’t be around to tell it.
Before I begin though, a bit of a preamble seems called for. To wit: even under the most favorable circumstances, and such circumstances surrounded me as a child, no matter how loving, conscientious, understanding and always available parents may be we never really get to know them, get to know their secrets. Or seldom do unless some crisis accidentally rips aside the masks we wear with each other. The better we get along in fact the easier it is to hide behind them. For both parents and children. Behind courtesy, agreeable manners, amiable dispositions.
It is axiomatic that we don’t tell our parents everything. It only stands to reason they keep things from us when it suits them. Certainly when we’re children, but by the time we’re grown their habit of withholding this, that or the other piece of knowledge from us has become ingrained. That, in part, is what this story is about.
So then, to begin; 1922 to 1942 were the years of my childhood and early youth and self-evidently the most vividly conscious years for me were the 1930s. In retrospect, worldwide the ‘30’s was an ugly decade of wars, massacres, the rise of new and terrible dictatorships, economic depression, Dust Bowl poverty and hunger and every other kind and the inexorable threat of far greater catastrophes to follow. But many of these signs and events were far off, blurred by distance and minimal reporting. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression but Roosevelt had instilled a pervasive sense of optimism in the country, and for the 85 percent who were employed, prices were amazingly low by today’s standards, for rent, food, clothing, transportation. Forty to $60 a month for a four-room apartment in a decent neighborhood. A man could clothe himself from BVDs to overcoat and fedora for less than $50. An entire ham cost $3. Hamburger was ten cents a pound. For a few hundred dollars you could buy a car that would last for years.
My parents and I lived the good life at the top of the economic pyramid, to borrow FDR’s phrase. My neighborhood, the Gold Coast on the Near North Side, or more specifically the Astor Street District, is an enclave of elegant town houses in a variety of styles from Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque and Georgian Revival to Art Deco behind the splendid apartment towers of Lake Shore Drive. Adjacent to the lake and just below Lincoln Park, it was the most fashionable neighborhood in a city of more than three million. What fixes this enclave in my mind as vividly as its architecture were the gleaming symbols cruising past, entering driveways, parked along curbs: the great cars of the era: Cadillacs and Lincolns of course but also wonderful long vanished marques: Packards, Auburns, Cords, Duesenbergs, Pierce Arrows, Graham-Paiges and so many other forgotten names. Cars with running boards, with spare spoke wheels set into polished fenders, cars with front grills of chrome like shining, distinctive coats of arms. The late 20’s, early 30’s was the golden age of the American automobile, an age of classic, beautiful styling that would never be repeated or equaled. In America and Europe automobile design was a distinctive and memorable art form. The great cars, the great trains—the Orient Expresses and the 20th-century Limited—the great ocean liners like the Normandie, and as background music superb jazz and always haunting popular songs, were achievements of this otherwise so often corrupt and sorry era, whose passing would be mourned.
For the first 20 years of my life, those years, say, from about the age of eight on, I had a marvelous time. I led a privileged, glamorous life as the only child of indulgent parents, Jack and Liz Darcy, socialite patrons of the arts who seemed to know absolutely everyone interesting who lived in the city or who came to town to perform; the world’s best in their fields, and if my parents and I weren’t watching them perform at Orchestra Hall or the Civic Opera House or in a jazz club on Rush Street, at a legitimate theater or on movie screens, at The Stadium for a championship bout, in seats behind home plate at Wrigley Field or Commisky Park, constellations of stars seemed to glitter at least once a month, often every fortnight, in our very large Lake Shore Drive apartment: symphony conductors and virtuosos, jazz musicians, opera singers, stage and motion picture actors, baseball heroes, championship boxers and golfers, tennis aces. I wasn’t hidden from these distinguished, celebrated, indeed often dazzling personalities. From an early age I was trained to mingle with them socially, helping to pass little silver dishes of things to nibble on, being seen rather than heard except to answer any questions briefly and politely, and not be seen too long, until I was old enough to carry on a conversation if encouraged to do so. I was not to make a nuisance or pest of myself, nor to show off, and I learned soon enough that good, reticent and modest behavior was an easy price to pay for the enjoyment of being able to watch and listen to many of the luminaries of the day.
Like his father and grandfather before him my father was a banker. Though I never heard him described as anything but competent at his profession I’m sure banking, just banking, bored him. But he had time and energy to burn and abhorred idleness. He served on the boards of the Chicago Symphony, the Civic Opera, The Art Institute and several other cultural, educational and charitable organizations. And still had time to write an excellent history of the theater in Chicago. At the height of its glory before the First World War, the city could boast of two dozen legitimate playhouses and nine vaudeville stages.(In the ‘30’s, more than a half dozen playhouses were left, not as many as in Manhattan but still a respectable number.) The book sold well and is still considered one of the authoritative works on the subject. He followed that up with a lively history of the early years of the 20th century when Chicago was a movie capital of the nation.
Jack Darcy was a kind of Renaissance man: banker, author, civic leader, philanthropist, tennis champ, musician. A ranking amateur tennis player for years, he’d been the victor two years in a row in a major regional tournament. He played almost professional quality jazz and pop music and at parties late in the evening, accompanying himself, might render a chorus or two of popular ballads in his agreeable saloon tenor, modestly not over-projecting himself but letting Porter or Hart or Ira Gershwin, whoever, speak for themselves.
I see my father in a straw boater and often enough in a top hat, both worn at jaunty angles, though of course in colder weather most often in a snap-brim brown fedora that suited his kind of refined Irish-American face.
My mother was slim, pretty, fashionable, fast-moving, fast-talking, sociable and democratic in virtually any company, skilled at repartee, at drawing out the shy, at the same time accomplished at dissembling boredom, distaste or both. In other words, the perfect hostess and the ideal mate for my gregarious father.
My parents were not at all in awe of famous performers as people; as my father once noted, away from the keyboard, a great pianist’s hands were like any other pair of hands. And on his feet or knees crossed at a social gathering the question to ask is: is he simply an agreeable, interesting guy? They knew the chemistry of the celebrity world—who got along with whom and who didn’t. Those noted for bad behavior were not on the Darcys’ guest list. Those who were invited knew they could relax in the Darcy apartment among their own kind and so they came. And came again.
But as much as I liked and admired them both, as children will I took my parents for granted. It was actually a glamorous outsider who had the greatest influence on my life.
From about 1930 on, once a year for a month or so, the length of her annual run at the Harris Theater, or the Selwyn or the Erlanger or one of the others, a frequent visitor was the Irish actress Meg O’Fallon. She was a family friend. My father had known her in Dublin shortly after the First World War before he returned to Chicago to marry his Liz. Meg was learning her craft with the Abbey Theater. My father had been in military intelligence with the Rainbow Division in France, served in the army of occupation and considering his love of the stage had managed a side trip to Dublin to take in the celebrated Abbey for the first time. Then in 1935 we’d gone to Europe, including Ireland, and at 13 I’d seen Meg play “Pegeen Mike” in The Playboy of the Western World.
Bored in her suite at the Drake Hotel, on non-matinee afternoons in the late ‘30’s, Meg O’Fallon would sometimes stroll over to our apartment. Liz was invariably off doing one thing or another; she led a nonstop social life and was active in several charitable organizations, and I would be Meg O’Fallon’s host. We played a lot of two-handed rummy and double solitaire and she’d help me to better understand the Shakespeare play I was currently studying at the college-prep Latin School of Chicago in my neighborhood. On fine days we strolled in Lincoln Park and sat on benches with ice cream cones purchased from a kiosk or a mobile vendor.
“Ned, darlin’!” she might exclaim when she caught sight of me. Or “Ned, my love!” Or simply hug me by way of greeting. She had a daughter, who lived in London. Maybe she also wanted a boy. In Chicago for a month a year I supposed I was a kind of a temporary, surrogate son.
I see her clearly, a woman rounding 40 of medium height who could make herself tall or small or stay the same, as a role demanded. Not a great beauty; her features were, nonetheless, harmonious, above which flourished a glorious mop, cascade or turban of titian hair, depending on her roles or mood of the day. She could arrange it in a remarkable variety of ways. Who dominated every stage I saw her on with her consummate, stunning acting skill and magnificent voice that gave you the joyful shivers, but who, in person in one of our drawing rooms in the late afternoon, would withdraw into her private self, her voice still well modulated but muted, her manner modest and relaxing. Even as a guest at one of my parents’ parties, among other performers and celebrities, her voice might become somewhat more musical but not emotive and her manner would remain refreshingly natural and non-intimidating. She was neither assertive nor self-effacing but simply the perfect guest who fit in any gathering, who could converse with anyone, to some degree on virtually any subject of general or professional interest with quiet intelligence and wit. But as often as I came to observe her offstage appearances I could never forget her onstage performances, the thrill of them, and for me she was always a goddess, one of the great ladies of the theater, a master of her indispensable art.
Meg had left the Abbey in 1928 to join Micheál MacLiammóir’s Gate Theater of Dublin with its eclectic repertoire. The Gate came to Chicago and I remember Meg as “Olga” in The Three Sisters, as “Nora” in A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, and most memorable of all as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra with all her “immortal longings.”
A month in Chicago, and then she’d be gone again to fulfill engagements in London, Dublin, New York. She remembered my birthday every year with a gift, always chosen with thoughtfulness and care, but it would not be accompanied by a card or note, only by her signature, “Meg,” and similarly would she send gifts to all three Darcys at Christmas. Otherwise she never wrote. We knew her itinerary and read reviews in the New York and London newspapers to which we subscribed. Beyond these details, her life on her peregrinations away from Chicago was a kind of mystery. She was married to a British actor and sometimes they traveled together as a team or part of a troupe but more often they did not; these were the hazards and downside of the life of strolling players. They made their home, such as it was—though they could live there so seldom it may have meant a great deal to them—in London. As I said, they had a daughter, some years younger than I was. I would meet her later but not for another ten years or so, after the war.
At 15, 16, 17, what I thought I wanted to do in life was a source of deep introspection, speculation and discussion during my scattered afternoons with Meg O’Fallon. Not an actor. That urge and drive was missing. Certainly not a banker. Something exciting, different, but what? I had no known nor observable talents except at tennis but not enough to be a pro at that.
“Read, study, look!” Meg advised. “But decide? No, not yet.”
“At my age you knew what you were going to be,” I said.
“But you, my love, are still undecided, don’t you see? You must wait until you know. Then follow your heart.”
She didn’t say what to do if you knew and then tried and failed, which of course happens all the time. But of course she was right not to. No matter what fate awaits you eventually, to deny yourself dreams of glory is to live a lesser life.
At the Latin School of Chicago I was not an outstanding student, not even a good one. I wasn’t stupid, I was lazy, and disinterested in anything that didn’t come easily, the one thing that did being French, though I did well enough in Latin. In math, science, history, literature I just squeaked by.
It was Meg who shamed me and encouraged me to read. For enjoyment and enrichment, not just what I was forced to read to pass an exam. All her stage career she’d had to commit to memory long and short passages of writing, some of it great literature, to interpret nuances and larger meanings and then to transform the written word into the nuances and meanings, the sonorities and poetic rhythm of speech. With love and great skill she selected stories and chapters and poems and read some of them to me aloud which I learned to love because Meg loved them, magic beyond the powers of my teachers. But though Meg could not help upstaging my teachers she did not undermine them. She urged and admonished me to listen to them and faithfully and carefully read what they assigned: Old classics. And new. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter. . .And my grades in English and world literature took a remarkable leap upward.
Meg focused on Shakespeare, on Chekhov and Dickens. I hear Meg’s great voice and for the rest of my life my own inner voice reciting things like “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. . .” How can one not be at least for a high moment lifted above ordinary life by such an exalted line?
Now let me recall an incident of that era that might seem trivial but at the time it struck me as possibly significant. We don’t really get to know our parents as I noted at the outset of this narrative. But 16-year-old boys do notice things nonetheless.
One afternoon Liz came home sooner than expected when Meg was still visiting.
Walking swiftly towards the back of our apartment and looking straight ahead, Liz called, “Meg, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a splitting headache.”
“My dear, then you need absolute quiet and I am just about to slip away,” said Meg before Liz disappeared.
Meg didn’t raise her eyebrows, not so I could notice, but I raised mine. This wasn’t typical behavior for Liz at all; it seemed to verge on rudeness, and this wasn’t her way. She rarely complained of minor aches and pains, especially not around guests. What struck me too was that I couldn’t recall another occasion when Liz and Meg had crossed paths in the afternoon. As though perhaps they had tacitly arranged not to be there at the same time. Of course they were always in the same rooms of our apartment at large parties but we all know how easy it is to avoid one-on-one encounters at affairs like that.
Was there some antagonism between them I wondered back then? More accurately, was Liz in some way jealous of Meg? Of her artistry and relative fame? Of her friendship with my father who had known her first? But I never saw any evidence of even innocent flirtatiousness between Meg and my father. If anything, though scrupulously cordial, they seemed rather formal with each other.
In any event Meg was in Chicago only a month or so a year and was soon gone again, life went smoothly on and I forgot the incident soon enough. Only recently did I remember it.
Trained by being judiciously included in my parents’ extremely active social life, I had become, or perhaps was by nature, a grownups’ child. But because I may have appeared in adult eyes more mature for my age than most children did not mean I was always confident and at ease among my peers. At 17 I had never dated, was shy around girls, and in love from afar.
With Meg in Lincoln Park one afternoon a year later the slender girl with straight dark hair I adored came along the gravel path and passed the bench where Meg and I were sitting. My heart must have been on both sleeves, in the blood rising in my face and in the at once joyful and despairing expression in my swiveling eyes as the girl approached and passed and walked on, once again out of my life. All of which Meg absorbed instantly and acutely.
“What a perfectly lovely girl!” she said. “We’re so near your school, do you know her?”
“She’s in the class behind me,” I said. “She doesn’t know I’m alive.”
“Then you must somehow stun her into the realization of your existence! We must plan a campaign of conquest! Up ‘til now perhaps there is something to be said for pure, idealized, secret adoration free of any social gaffes and physical awkwardness. But the time has come to buckle on your armor my boy and charge ahead! What’s her name?”
“Natalie. Natalie von Kaunitz. Her father was Austrian consul here until he decided to become an American. Her mother is an American already. He teaches German and political science at De Paul.”
“A man of honor considering the devil’s brew swirling in his native land. Your girl comes of noble blood. What are her interests? Do you have any idea?”
“No,” I despaired.
“Then you must find out! She was quite likely born in Vienna. Is she musical? I’m willing to wager even if she plays no musical instrument she has been brought up to appreciate music. You do. You’ve been to Orchestra Hall many times. Ask her to a symphony concert.”
“I don’t even know her, Meg.”
“You do know her. You know who she is, who her parents are. That’s the essential beginning. You’ll be amazed how easy it’s all going to be!”
“What if she hates music?”
“In that case you must give her up. But I don’t believe it. Like you she’s a student at the Latin School. She springs from cultured parents. We’ll think of something! Let me put my mind to it!”
Fearful uninhibited Meg in her enthusiasm and worldliness might cook up some elaborate and possibly embarrassing scheme beyond my histrionic powers, I was forced to take matters into my own hands as quickly as possible. There was no time, and I knew no one I could ask; I had forgotten where I had learned about the background of her parents, to find out Natalie von Kaunitz’s interests, especially whether or not she appreciated classical music. I had to steel myself to plunge ahead blindly, to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” as Meg had challenged me to do. I couldn’t chicken out and let her down. Soon after that afternoon in the park I looked for Natalie and found her in a school corridor alone. My heart threatening to race ahead twice as fast as usual and then stop dead, my mouth dry, my limbs shaking, I was sure visibly, I walked up to this beautiful, marvelous girl and spoke.
The banality of our exchange of words need not be recorded here. I only remember the gist of it anyway. Yes she would love to go with me to the Chicago Symphony concert the following week in which Sergei Rachmaninov would be the soloist, but she would have to ask her parents for permission. Could I telephone her that evening to confirm?
I could have leapt into the air and walked on it. Meg, the miracle worker, had wrought another. I couldn’t imagine what elaborate scheme to bring us together Meg might have dreamed up but as she admitted later neither could she. What she had done was simply to inspire me to take action for myself. And it had worked.
In my life I never had a more glamorous evening than that evening in 1939 at Orchestra Hall. Incomparably thrilling as the exquisite girl beside me who knew music, was the impact of the great, tall Rachmaninov himself striding on stage, ramrod straight in white tie and tails, hair cropped closely to his skull, his features craggy and commanding, his hands huge; unmistakably no one else.
Cabbing it back to Natalie’s apartment house, stunned by so much superb music: Brahms, Beethoven, Richard Strauss—and Rachmaninov (his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”), so much of it played so magnificently by a man who at 66 was already larger than life, and enraptured by the kisses Natalie and I exchanged, the first of their kind in my life, there was no need to speak.
It didn’t last of course, less than a year. Natalie was too popular and I had graduated from the Latin School to begin classes at Loyola University and was dating other girls now that through Meg O’Fallon’s inspiration I had been given the confidence to ask them out. And through Meg’s inspiration was applying myself to my studies across the board.
The last time I saw Meg before the war she was wearing a blonde pageboy wig and flourishing a cigarette holder as long as Franklin Roosevelt’s playing the phony Russian aristocrat “Irene” in Sherwood’s antiwar Idiot’s Delight. It would be nine more years before I’d see her again.
I spent the war years, ‘42 to ‘45, training in the States and as a gunner with the 10th Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater and by 1946 was back at Loyola for another three years, years Meg had no stateside engagements. As a graduation present my parents gave me a trip to Europe. Naturally I planned to try to see Meg in London. “Let her know you’re coming,” my father said, but I didn’t. I thought it would be more fun to surprise her after so long a time.
Cities never seem to look quite the same on the second visit, especially after a 14-year absence. But I remembered London when I was there at the age of 13, as one of those tall, capacious old London cabs tooled me quietly to a narrow house on Half Moon Street just beyond Shepherd Market at two one afternoon.
A lovely dark-haired girl of about 20 opened the front door after my ring, looked at me questioningly but then, quite suddenly excited when she heard my name, called “Mother!” pulled me into the front hall by one hand, and Meg soon appeared from the back of the house and clapped a hand over her mouth when she saw me.
To say that Meg was surprised was, not surprisingly, absolutely the case but that she was overwhelmingly pleased to see me was obviously a matter of some doubt. Pleased, yes, once she recovered from her surprise and began to get used to the idea that I was standing there in her front hall, a grown man of 27 now, not a boy of 19. But my father had been right, I should have let her know in advance of my pending arrival, because now she was unprepared for my unscripted appearance, and of all things to see this great actress whose stage presence was absolute, briefly flustered! And, briefly, not pleased to be caught in that state.
The girl was her daughter, Moira, an actress now herself, currently playing Juno Boyle’s benighted daughter, Mary, in a revival of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She went to make us tea and Meg and I began to talk a blue streak, to catch up, to fill in the last eight, going on nine, years. After bringing tea, Moira left us to our flood of information and recollection and on the edge of my consciousness I found myself sorry she wasn’t with us.
Meg told me about air-raid shelter life during the bombing of London only a few years back. I told her about Calcutta (one of the lost outposts of empire—Malta, Cairo, Calcutta—she would, as it turned out, tour with the Gate Theater in the ‘60’s for the British Council), and about being rescued by Kachin Scouts from the Burmese jungle after my plane flying over The Hump lost an engine and the crew had to depart by parachute. I didn’t meet her husband. He was on location in Wales, making a film. Then it was time for her to leave for The West End where she was starring in a new comedy. I was able to get a ticket at the last minute and watched two acts before crossing the street to see Moira in the last act of Juno, returning with a bouquet of flowers to present to Meg, once again her dedicated stage-door Johnny. It seemed politic not to mention having missed part of Meg’s comedy in order to watch some of Moira’s performance.
But it was Moira herself who told her mother we’d had lunch and then drinks and then dinner together during the week I stayed in London and Meg sent a note to my hotel asking me to call on her “urgently” backstage where she strode about and delivered one of her most impassioned performances.
“Are you mad, Ned Darcy? Completely daft! You tell me you’re contemplating a diplomatic career. The life of a diplomat and the life of an actress? World’s apart! Separated by your careers! Don’t I know everything there is to know about separation, and my husband an actor, in the same profession! You and Moira? A recipe for disaster! Unhappiness! Destructive to your kind of life and hers!”
I knew she was right. I had sense enough to see that, though somewhat dimly through the thunderclap of love at first sight, the blindness of infatuation. With tears in her eyes far more real than theatrical Meg embraced me and I left London without ever seeing Moira again.
As always, after a certain age, you wake up one morning and are amazed at the passage of time—four decades from the ‘50’s to the ‘80’s. If you’re 30 reading this, that won’t mean very much, just more ancient history, but it means a lot to me.
During the five years, the first half of the ‘50’s I spent in Manhattan working as a political analyst for the Free Europe Committee, Meg O’Fallon had no New York engagements. She was making movies in England. She was in her late 50’s then, a character actress, not the star, but they were small movies to begin with, a domestic comedy, a costume drama, two detective mysteries, good in their way but no Academy Award nominations came out of them. Though as an ardent partisan I thought Meg should have been cited for best supporting actress in two of these films; the others had less scope.
I began a career in the foreign service, fell in love with a girl named Dorothy and we were married, the best thing that ever happened to me. Our two children were born and we spent the next 26 years serving in a half dozen posts from Europe to the Far East.
Meg had started touring with the Gate Theater to the Mid and Far East for the British Council but in the mid-‘60’s she was back in London playing Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar, based on correspondence between Mrs. Campbell and George Bernard Shaw. Dorothy and I traveled to London to see it. Meg, almost 70 then who could play her age and a woman 20 years younger, was perfect in this delicious bravura role where she must devolve from famous actress to an indigent old lady with only slight costume changes, and the reviews were ecstatic:
”. . .a natural actress, a consummate professional, an inspired performer. What more could one ask?”—The Times.
“Sheer bliss. . .”—The Daily Telegraph
To say that Meg O’Fallon lacked vanity would be foolish. At the same time she never claimed to be younger than she was nor to make herself appear younger with plastic surgery or flattering photography. Instead she simply trumpeted with no false modesty: “It takes 70 years to acquire character and true beauty!” and made all who saw her believe it.
We took her to dinner at the Connaught Grill and she was magnificent in her success and splendor, signing autographs en route like the star she was.
“How wonderful to feel like a just discovered ingenue again!” she said in her husky melodious voice, her great eyes flashing emerald sapphire.
Meg’s flare of flamboyance that evening was really a role put on for her admirers in the restaurant. It was uncharacteristic of her offstage and she was soon quietly, albeit intensely, drawing us out about our life, our children and telling us about Moira’s life as a mother in a country town and about her grandchildren.
The last time we saw Meg we saw her perform in New York in 1978. She was 80 who looked a slim 60. She played the lead, the landowner “Liuba Andryeevna Ranyevskaia,” who was an even younger woman, in a splendid repertory theater production of The Cherry Orchard. Dorothy and I timed a long planned visit to her parents, and mine, to coincide with the opening of Chekhov’s—and Meg’s—last play. Jack and Liz flew to New York to join us in a kind of gala three-way reunion. After the performance we supped at the Plaza Hotel. A few people actually recognized Meg or so I assumed from whispered asides I could see. Others, seemingly intrigued by her queenly mien perhaps saw in her some personage, a frail but still flinty presence, impressive but unidentified. Most didn’t notice her at all. There were Hollywood actresses without an ounce of her talent but far more famous who would not have gone unnoticed for a second,
“Dear friends I embrace you all,” Meg said. “How important you are to me! How diminished this evening would be without you!”
The trip may have been too much for my father, though he seemed to enjoy himself immensely. Sadly, not long afterward he succumbed to a fatal stroke.
By 1982 Dorothy and I had lived most of a quarter century abroad. It was time to resettle in America. Our last post had been Paris and we’d lived in a village about 25 miles from the city. Martha’s Vineyard struck us as an approximate match. At our age Paris, becoming more and more crowded, and Manhattan—and Chicago—were for long weekends.
A week or so after Meg died in 1983 and her death was still very much on my mind, I flew to Chicago to visit Liz who was still living on Lake Shore Drive after so many years, six decades. A London Times turned to the obituary page with Meg’s obit and tribute was still folded on a coffee table between our chairs.
I don’t remember when I had started calling her Liz. When I came back to Chicago after the war? Oh way earlier than that it must have been. As a kid. Whenever it was she didn’t seem to mind. We’d always had an easy relationship.
Of course I had had sad and frightened moments like any other child. Not so often that was true. But Liz had little or no time for them. Instinctively it seemed. Or literally, she was always so busy with one activity or another. I didn’t hold it against her. I liked her. She was cheerful and she could be funny and we were friends. Lord knows she was generous, and overlooked my shortcomings and failings. But it sometimes seemed to me I got more mothering from our Irish immigrant housekeeper-cook.
I took a small box from my pocket and opened it to show Liz the small gold and silver Celtic cross secured in velvet, a neck pendant. I showed her the opposite side inscribed with a date, 1922, nothing else. “Meg’s last birthday present to me before she died. She never missed. Not in more than 50 years. I wonder about that.”
It was only a nagging bit of wonderment but it had tantalized the edge of my mind for years.
“You once told me you couldn’t have any more children,” I said. “The subject never came up again.”
Liz looked at me over the tops of her glasses for a very long moment.
“After three miscarriages that seemed to be the case.” She seemed to hesitate, then to wave away whatever misgivings she might have had. “But the word more,” she said, “was, shall we say, a slight exaggeration.”
A long silence hovered between us but perhaps not so strangely it was a peaceful silence. She was so very old and I was getting there. Between us so much life had flowed for so many years and it had been a good life, a rich life. We had escaped the horrors of the 20th century. We had had money and success and luck. We had been fulfilled by art, by friendship, by love.
“So now you know what I suppose you might have wondered about for years,” Liz said at last. “Your father knew how to get a new birth certificate issued, place of birth changed from Dublin to Chicago after a not so quick trip by ship in those days to bundle you up and bring you back here. It was the only thing to do and neither your father nor I nor do I believe Meg O’Fallon ever regretted it for a minute. I can’t imagine you do either, my dear. Do you?”
And then I remembered Moira and with a chill up my back thought how we might have defied Meg and run off together, might have had an affair even without running off. But I thought that Meg, terrified of such possibilities, must at some early moment, probably right after she had summoned me to her dressing room that day in London to warn me off, have told Moira who I really was.