of all the privileges i’ve had in the last five years- and there have been many- meeting hugh d. auchincloss iii is the biggest.
back in the summer of 2011, i went out to hammersmith farm twice. first, for a formal interview on jackie. the second time, for a less formal conversation that he indulged me in and which wound up lasting over two hours.
in between the interviews, i sent flowers- in the belief that men remember women who send them flowers and because, though i’m neither of the old world or from newport, that seemed like the type of old world, newport thing to do. when i called to confirm our second meeting, screaming down the line: YUSHA? IT’S OLINE. OLINE… THE WRITER!!! there was silence and a cough and then yusha said, oh, yes, yes, oline of the flowers, how are you?
his voice was like rolling hills and honey and summer. one of those broad upper-crust accents, caught in some liminal space between north and south, so that it is at once strange and familiar and AMERICA.
a few weeks before i went to see yusha for the second time, a biographer had read some of my work, found it frustrating, and complained, i can’t pin you down, oline. i just can’t pin you down. he could not imagine what i was doing, a complaint that unnerved me as the message i took from it was that there was something wrong with me which bled into my writing, making my work seem slick- a series of frustrating evasions and refusals rather than the kaleidoscope of possibilities which i wanted it to be.
on my way to see yusha, i was worrying over the question of how to overhaul my writing- something that would obviously involve overhauling my self- and how to make the work i produced more neatly align with the expectations of others. put more directly (and absurdly): to make it align with the book other writers would write were they writing this book. all so that this book, my book, would more easily meet with success.
i went to see yusha and, at the time, i wrote this:
i’m sitting on yet another low-to-the-ground couch in yusha’s sun room. he isn’t feeling well. there are these thick silences that sit between us but i’ve learned to wait.
he’s been working on his tan, sunning at the beach every afternoon, he tells me. his blue eyes shine bright in the golden brown of his face.
i am listening but my mind keeps darting back to what the biographer had said. i cannot be pinned down. i will fail, inevitably, because i cannot be pinned down.
we’ve been deep into an analysis of jfk’s foreign policy in the middle east but, after a pause, yusha coughs and, apropos of nothing, he says: “you know, caroline, i’m presbyterian but i go to the episcopal church… and i teach islam at the school and i’m a christian but most days i think the muslims have got it all right… i’m a conservative and i love obama… my friends tell me i make no sense… but i make sense enough for me so i don’t pay them much mind.”
having said this, he levels a steady gaze in my direction. it’s as if he knows what i have been thinking and is willing the bad thoughts away. he holds the gaze a few seconds, shoots me a flirtatious wink and looks away.
i’m struck upon leaving that i may never see him again. this hits me in that moment as absolutely the saddest thing.
it was a turquoise room that we sat in, if i remember correctly. (it is possible that i do not.) it was august then and we sat there because it was the coolest room in the house. full of books and photographs, a room filled with his past.
all of this came flooding back when i heard this afternoon that yusha died over the weekend. the shade of the paint, the bend of the sunlight, the stillness of the house, the blue of his eyes, his voice like a lazy afternoon, from another time, another world. me- so young, so insecure- doing my best impression of the biographer i wanted to be and naive enough not to fully comprehend the extent of his generosity.
it was early days then. and so as i left that afternoon, i was saddened to feel that i would probably never see him again. but when he looked me in the eye as he bid me farewell and he said, “she would have liked you. she would have liked that you’re doing this,” i didn’t know that would become one of the last lines of the book i’d yet to write.
so much has to happen before you see how the pieces fit. it is so unpindownable, so unclear. and that is ok. that is, actually, life.