Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Oh The Glory of It All
Upon finishing page 479 of Sean Wilsey's beautifully written memoir last week, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The book is an old-fashioned bildungsroman, the story of a young man's moral and psychological growth into adulthood, but instead of being written as a novel, he leaves in everybody's real names and all the specific details of the world he grew up in.
It was a good choice, though the number of hurdles he had to avoid (self-pity, whining, score-settling, navel-gazing) were considerable. The only book I can think of that's similar is the late Julia Phillips' grotesque "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," which just made one pity whoever had the misfortune to come into her life.
Part of the world Wilsey recreates is San Francisco Society in the 1980s. Like all "society," it's essentially a world of rich women who are enabled by an army of gay male decorators, caterers, florists and jewelers. It's also vicious as hell. Check out the gruesome "Paper City" if you need any confirmation. The rich husbands, in their tuxedos at the Opera opening, have always looked interchangeable and in fact they are, as the book demonstrates.
Wilsey's dad was a self-made real estate and butter king and his mother was Pat Montandan, a beauty and local media character. Sean was their only child and they lived in the outrageously extravagant two-story penthouse at the top of "The Summit" on Russian Hill. When he was ten years old, Mom's best friend at the time, Dede Wilsey, walked off with her husband. Here's the account from the book:
"This is what Dede did. She got to know Mom, found her greatest weakness (pride and vanity), stole her greatest asset (family), mocked Mom's presence in a world where she didn't belong (society), lit Mom's fuse, and watched her explode.
Dede's was an extraordinary betrayal. Extraordinary in its boldness, its meanness, and its total unoriginality."
After that crucial break, Sean's childhood/pubescent stories are all about survival. How can he make Dad love him? How can he make Dede love him? How can he keep Mom from committing suicide off the balcony and taking him along? Then the evil stepmother makes sure he is shipped to one East Coast boarding school after another, where adolescent sadism reigns. It's a fairly harrowing tale.
But lord, the characters are great, and viewed with extraordinary wisdom thoughout. The book is also the best depiction of San Francisco and Northern California since Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" tomes. Weirdly enough, they both share a major character, Mom in Sean's story and the lightly fictionalized Prue Giroux in Maupin's book. Both characters are depicted as completely over-the-top, delusional, and ridiculous, but by the end of both narratives, Mom and Prue become absurdly admirable characters. In fact, "Oh the Glory of It All" is dedicated to her.
Al Wilsey died recently, but not only is Pat Montandon still alive, living in Los Angeles, but Dede Wilsey is still the Queen of San Francisco Society. Her latest project has been the erection of the new deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, with its overbearing architecture and phallic tower housing a provincial art collection. She was probably expecting to be the Queen of All She Surveys by this fall for its opening, but this book is a great, classic act of revenge on her. It's reminiscent of the ending of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" when all of Paris Society have read the evil letters and shun the old heroine.
My only complaint with the book is that there are no photographs, so I've provided a few of the oversized Summit building and its penthouse where so much of the bizarre tale takes place. It is now occupied by George Schultz, the old war profiteer, and his wife, the Chief of Protocol for San Francisco and serial widow, Charlotte Maillard Schultz.