The All-American Boy
Turkey Righter was looking forward to his 100th birthday.
I’d gone out to Bedford, New York, to meet him at the suggestion of a woman who knew that I was interested in talking to people who’d been born in the early years of the twentieth-century.
The landmark birthday was to be celebrated on May 2, 2003 and chatting with Turkey in the autumn of the previous year, it was hard not to be charmed by this slender and elegant retired advertising executive. After a light lunch in the luxuriously sparse contemporary dining room which had been designed by his late wife, he shared some of his earliest memories.
“I had had a super case of whooping cough,” he recalled. “It lasted three months, so a whole year was washed out for me. I had to repeat the first grade.
“As I was getting better, I said to my mother, ‘You know, Teddy Roosevelt is going to speak in the park.’ But she warned that if I was still whooping I couldn’t go.
“Well, I accidentally whooped once, but I didn’t think she’d want to know about that and I was able to go over to the park to listen to Teddy Roosevelt.
“I’m a little boy and I was there.
“And if you’re a little boy, horses, pistols, buffaloes, lassoes, all that kind of thing, are important. Here was my hero! San Juan Hill and the Maine and Havana. The Spanish American War was, to me, like the Civil War was to other kids. And here was the hero of all heroes—turning up in Plainfield, New Jersey! He was running for President on the Bull Moose ticket.
“I was mesmerized. My mother hadn’t come along. (Why should she? She couldn’t vote. It was a race between my mother and me as to who’d get to vote first!)
“So I’m in the park and at the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, everybody stands up to shake hands with him. What was I going to do? I lined up too, climbed the steps, and walked up to Teddy Roosevelt.
“He asked me, ‘What are you doing here, little boy?’
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I came to get a Bull Moose button.’ (The Bull Moose button wasn’t plastic; it was metal of some sort.)
“He looked all around the podium for a button (there was no bodyguard in sight), but he couldn’t find one. So he took his own button out of his buttonhole and gave it to me. We were one block away from my house but I could have jumped home in one jump!”
Turkey, still boyish, smiled at the recollection. He clearly enjoyed telling stories from long ago.
“Henry Taylor. Who was Henry Taylor?”
Turkey looked thoughtfully around. We’d moved into the striking living room of his large house. Through the walls of windows, naked trees and a carpet of orange, brown, and yellow leaves spoke of the passage of time.
“Henry Taylor lived on West 7th Street in Plainfield, New Jersey—about four or five blocks down from where I lived. He was the brightest boy in the class and I had the most trouble.
“Henry and I were inseparable. I remember we decided that since we were getting to be eleven or twelve, we had to go on a trip. So we took our bicycles from Plainfield to Princeton to Lawrenceville. (My father had set up a thing so that we could sleep at Lawrenceville for the night.)
“We went with the wind—and it took no time. I don’t know how many miles it is from Plainfield to Princeton to Lawrenceville, but it was a good little trip for a couple of eleven-year-olds.”
Encouraged by the success of this adventure, when the young Turkey heard about a new invention—the Smith Motor Wheel—he was anxious to try it out. In those days, when motorcycles had first became popular but still cost a lot of money, this was an inexpensive alternative—a small engine which could be fitted onto a regular bicycle.
“At that time I was developing my own pictures,” said the about-to-be centenarian. “So I got to know the fella who ran the picture shop. And he had one of these gadgets.
“I asked ‘How much is that?’ It was $30.
“Now, I always was a saver. I always had some money put away. Fifty cents here, a dollar there. It added up and I had $35 in the bank.
But I told my father, ‘I want a Smith Motor Wheel.’ I thought he might give it to me. No. Instead, he said, ‘Well, you’re going to take it out of your account then.’
“So I did and I was the only boy in town who had a Smith Motor Wheel—a one-cylinder thing that goes pop-pop-pop. You strapped it on the frame, parallel to your back wheel. And it had arms that went out and wires that went up to your handlebars—just like a real motorcycle.
“Soon afterward Henry and I had to get something that was important and we couldn’t get it in Plainfield and we had to go to Newark. Henry had his bicycle and I had my Smith Motor Wheel and he held onto my shoulder as we rode along and the two of us went on the power of that Smith Motor Wheel all the way to Newark. He rode his bike and put his hand on my shoulder. The little Smith Motor Wheel pulled the two of us along.”
For a few moments the old gentleman’s expression clouded. He stared out into space.
“Henry Taylor went to Princeton and got killed the first year he was there in an automobile accident. They took him to a nunnery or something that was nearby and the guy bled to death. Otherwise, he’d be sitting here now.”
Watching Turkey’s expression change, I was afraid that our interview might be derailed by melancholy. It wasn’t. After a few moments he seemed to dismiss the sadness and he started to talk about other kinds of travel.
“In 1924, four of our group from Harvard went abroad on the German Hamburg-American line.
“We all played a little bit of bridge, not much, but we sat at the bar and played. If you’ve ever sat in a bar that’s been saturated with alcohol for years and years – well, the wood has got it, and the walls have got it. It’s the most delicious smell! And it was prohibition in our country. We would sit there to get the atmosphere and play a little bridge and at the next table there were four Germans and we heard them ordering their drinks. ‘Bier mit schnapps.’ So when the waiter came around we said ‘Bier mit schnapps.’ I was just twenty-one. We floated our way to Europe.”
“When we got off the boat we took the train to Paris and stayed at the Elysee Hotel. It was on the left bank of the Seine. How much do you think it was? A dollar a night. But you had to add ten cents for a hot bath.
“And every day we went to the Louvre and every day we went to the Ritz Bar. I think that there wasn’t a college boy who didn’t go to the Ritz Bar to see and be seen
‘Then there was Joe Zelli’s Bar. It was a famous bar with dancing girls and whatever you wanted I guess. We would go there night after night. I think the cover was a bottle of champagne on the table, which was $4 or $5, and which, since there were four of us, wouldn’t kill us. The dancing girls would join your table and they’d get a commission on how many drinks you had.
“We got to know four girls, we would sit together and we got sort of friendly with these girls—we never did anything wrong with any of them—and we asked them to the Louvre. They were educated girls, with a nice manner. Well, we made a date for Sunday. I guess they didn’t work on Sundays. We were going to meet them at such and such a place; we were all tuned up to buy them a good meal. Not one of them showed up! Interfered with business or it wasn’t worthwhile, I guess.
“But if you’d never been to the Louvre and you’d been invited and you lived in Paris—well, that was really a shocker to me.
“Another time when we were at Joe Zelli’s a couple of Americans arrived. Bertie Tilt exclaimed ‘That’s my young uncle and his new wife!’ And he went to see them at their table. After he returned, a waiter brought a note: ‘This place is boring. Follow us in your cab.’
“We arrived at Petite Chaumiere. Uncle got a table for two on the raised part of the room and got us a table for four smack in the middle of everything. We were the center of attention. Of course there was a bottle of champagne on our table.
“Now all the waiters were wearing evening dresses. Not too bad looking! They made a fuss over us—I’m sure paid for by uncle. This was all a big surprise to me. I didn’t know places like this existed. Then one of the girls sat on Bertie Tilt’s lap. Bertie exploded! ‘Get away from me! Go away!!!’
“The whole room caught on that something was wrong. Bertie wanted to leave. But I said ‘Not till we have finished our $5 bottle of champagne.’
“None of it really bothered me. I was young and Europe was the place to learn about life.”
Also born in 1903 and with ties to the Bedford area (“Villa Diana,” the Italianate villa left to her by her grandmother was in neighboring Katonah), Diana Vreeland, the so-called Empress of Fashion, was less reflective than Turkey but certainly just as interesting.
Seated in the back seat of a taxi, going down Park Avenue, this ancient and Lilliputian lady turned to me and asked, “Don’t you wish New York were more like Moscow?”
This was New York in the early eighties, albeit not the city’s finest hour, but certainly that particular wish was unique. My expression must have reflected my puzzlement.
“All those gold domes,” she explained, and waved her well-manicured and bejeweled but arthritic hand from side to side as if by doing so she could somehow summon those domes into being.
I settled back more comfortably into the seat and smiled in appreciation.
Being with Diana Vreeland was like being with the spaceiest crowd from the late sixties—all fabulous colors and sensuality and oblong perspective—only with her, nobody was smoking Maui Wowie to get to that extra special place.
In her autobiography, D.V., for example, the celebrated and arbiter of taste wrote surrealistically of growing up on East 79th Street in Manhattan and of a disappointingly empty church on her wedding day. Harriet Milliken, a childhood classmate, read those recollections and announced to anyone who would listen, “She’s gone round the bend, I tell you. She’s gone round the bend! She grew up on East 77th Street, not East 79th. And I was at her wedding. The church was filled with people!” (At least as far as childhood reminiscences are concerned, Mrs. Milliken seems to have been correct: the New York Social Registers from 1912 until the early 1920s list Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Dalziel [Diana Vreeland’s parents] as living at 15 East 77th Street and Mr. and Mrs. George de Boketon Greene [Harriet Milliken’s parents] living at 21 East 77th Street.)
Fantasies and fabrications not withstanding, in the back of that cab I was quite pleased with myself and could think of no place in the world I’d rather be. Here I was, in my mid-thirties, escorting one of the most influential woman in the world home from a party.
After that cab ride, Diana Vreeland and I became better friends. And a few months later, Kip, Malcolm Forbes’ third son and the one I knew best, called and offered me tickets to a benefit at Lincoln Center which was to be held in the presence of Britain’s Prince Charles.
“But,” he stipulated, “If I give you this pair of tickets, you’ve got to bring somebody famous. I want the TV cameras focused on our box.”
Well, it was the last minute and the number of famous people I could call at the last minute was limited. But I thought about Diana Vreeland and all those gold domes. I asked her, she accepted, and even offered to get us a limousine for the evening.
It was in that limousine driving up to Lincoln Center that we were confronted by a large protest organized by supporters of the IRA. Demonstrators were banging garbage can lids and yelling into bullhorns. Frightening? You bet.
I looked over at my frail elderly companion. She had taken out a small gold compact and was applying quantities of rouge. To her ears. After all, this was the woman who had proclaimed ,“You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life.”
At that moment, however, style was not uppermost in my mind.
“God help us,” I thought, “we’re going to be killed. Here we are, symbols of everything these guys are protesting, arriving at a benefit for some arty English charity in a limousine and I’m with a little old lady applying rouge to her ears!”
“I’ve always hated the Irish,” she said.
Somehow that didn’t make things better at the moment, but I’ve subsequently tried to remember that at moments of crisis it might not be a bad idea to put rouge on your ears. After all, that night we got to the benefit safely and I met the Prince. He was a lot shorter than I’d expected.
A few years later, when I heard that this remarkable lady was not well and was staying almost entirely within the confines of her apartment, I wrote a get-well note. The typewritten response dated April 24, 1986, is cherished to this day:
How remarkably attractive to hear from you….I would love to see you. Would you be sweet enough to telephone me between 12:30 and 3:30 at my old number and then we can make a plan to meet?
You will see a great change in me. I never go out, and only see people at home, and at the most, 1 or 2 people at a time. The reason for this is because of my eyes, which, after their wonderfully long service, have simply given out.
I remember you with such pleasure taking me dancing and to the opera.
My love to you. I am looking forward to your phoning me.”
Of course I called her and we had a few more visits. Even with no vision she was still able to verbally paint vibrant and extraordinary images. She had indeed been served well by her eyes.
Stuart Rockwell was laconic.
Trying to interview him as we sat in his Washington, DC, library was not an easy task. The answers he gave to all my questions were essentially monosyllabic and seemed incongruous coming from someone who had had such a long and distinguished career in the foreign service.
How could I get him to open up?
Without question, this was a gentleman who had many fascinating stories he could share. He had served in London during World War II in the counter-espionage section of the British MI5 and narrowly escaped a V-2 explosion near Marble Arch. In 1948, at the age of 31, he was assigned to Jerusalem just when the British were scheduled to give up the Palestine Mandate. There, fired at by a sniper himself, he watched as the US Consul General, Thomas Wasson, was shot and killed crossing the street. And later in his career Stuart Rockwell had served as the US Ambassador to Morocco.
Certainly he was there in the middle of things for a good part of the twentieth century.
“What about parties and receptions and things like that? Any particularly interesting ones you remember?” I asked.
It was the right question. He smiled and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Two parties stand out in my memory. The first was a reception that the king, Hassan II, decided to host at his palace in Fez. The diplomatic corps was all invited. And the tradition in Morocco is that the host does not eat until he sees that all his guests are happily eating. So there was this very sumptuous spread which included, as starters, smoked salmon.
“Some of the guests took smoked salmon and others didn’t. But those who took it, including my wife and me, discovered that it had gold sovereigns implanted in it. And those who had not taken smoked salmon rushed back to the buffet to see whether they could get some gold sovereigns or not. Meanwhile the king was hiding behind one of the pillars laughing at the sight of these diplomats scrambling to find the gold sovereigns in the salmon.”
Kings, presumably, must have their little jokes.
“The second memorable party,” continued the former ambassador, “was also hosted by King Hassan II. It was held in celebration of his own birthday and held at his seaside palace at Skhirat, south of Rabat.
“It was a stag party because it was a Muslim country and women are not supposed to mingle with men under such circumstances. There was also no alcohol, but a great deal of sumptuous food.
“All the notables of the realm and all the foreign diplomats were there along with a number of distinguished foreigners (a lot of whom were rich golf players because the king was a golf fanatic). There must have been 1,000 guests.
“At one point we heard this popping sound and people said, ‘Oh, how nice! The King has arranged trap shooting for us.’ We soon discovered, however, that the popping sound came from the Palace which was being assaulted by hostile troops from Fez. Bullets were flying everywhere.
“People took refuge. All at once, the Belgian ambassador was killed by a stray bullet and the Syrian was hit in the arm. In a matter of minutes, about 100 to 130 Moroccans, servants, and military defenders standing around us were killed.
“I went into the throne room because the walls were thick and it seemed the safest place. But when the troops—young people from the non-com academy in Fez—came in there, they forced us out again, and made us lie on the ground in front of the palace. These dissenters had come down under cover of darkness and surrounded the area unbeknownst to the Moroccan government. They looked for the King but didn’t know the layout of the property and couldn’t find him. (Where he was, along with his key cabinet members, was just off the throne room in the men’s room.)
“I found myself lying near the king’s brother, Prince Moulay Abdallah, whose elegant white silk formal djellaba was streaked with blood. He was showing remarkable calm.”
The former ambassador went on to explain a little bit about the political situation in Morocco at that time. “There was corruption in the higher circles—particularly in the royal family. Bribes were being taken and the reputation of the country was suffering. General Medbouh, who was a very charming man, thought that things would not improve until the King was forced to abdicate. But another man, Colonel Ababou allegedly had a different motive. He wanted to kill Hassan II and set up a Libyan-style republic.
“When they were looking for the King and they couldn’t find him, the radical Colonel Ababou screamed at General Medbouh, ‘Have you let him get away?’
“The general calmly answered, ‘No. I don’t know where he is.’ Although he knew perfectly well where he was—in the men’s room—having himself escorted him there himself.
“And then Colonel Ababou shot General Medbouh dead right there in front of me.
“Shortly after, Colonel Ababou and the majority of the attackers left and went back to Rabat thinking that General Medbouh had let the king escape and hopeful that they could find him there.
“The enlisted guard that was left guarding the palace kept on looking for the monarch. And yes, they finally found him in the men’s room. But when they did, and they realized that he was unharmed and that at that moment they were then the ones who were placing him in peril, they fell on their knees and begged forgiveness. It seems that General Ababou had told them that the king was under the control of foreigners and it was their duty to rescue him. But when they found him, they realized they were the ones who were harming him and not the foreigners.
“Meanwhile, we were allowed to leave. All our drivers and our cars, which had been parked down below the palace, drove up and took us off to Rabat. And on the way there were all the normal things going on. Kids were selling fish by the roadside; there were flower vendors, donkeys going along with loads of hay and stuff. It was as nothing had happened. But at least 130 people had been killed.
“That’s a party I will never forget.
“And there is an amusing postscript.
“This Casablanca businessman who was invited, and had been every year, thought that that year he would make other plans. He told his wife that that’s where he was going, but he decided he’d rather go and spend some time with his mistress. Of course this entire assassination attempt was on the radio, but he didn’t know it. When he returned home, his wife asked ‘How was the party, dear?’ ‘Oh,’ he answered, ‘as humdrum as all the others.’”