We used to be kings. Not real royalty, but cultural kings. By “we,” I mean our family. By “place,” I mean the world. And by “world,” I mean New York. My dad, Pat, and his brother Mike, in the 1960s and ‘70s, owned the fucking place.
After my grandmother tired of waiting for her world-traveling UPI reporter husband to come home to Port Washington, Long Island, she upped her three good-looking, quick-witted boys to Paris, where she studied painting and took quite a lot of dancing lessons with a much younger Frenchman. A few too many, it has been said.
Pat and Mike went on to Yale (their younger brother, Seamus, attended Harvard, and has since become a creator of reading programs for kids, a host to vacationing scuba divers, and “gentleman farmer,” for the oysters that spread out in a magnificent rocky carpet on the stretch of beach where he’s lived as long as I can remember, in the home my great grandparents built). What they lacked in old money they made up for in Irish charm and intellectual revelry. Dad took a Yiddish class to meet cute Jewish girls, and parlayed his Russian studies into a job as the Newsweek bureau chief for Moscow. His photo of a very sad Nikita Kruschev, head down in half-light, made the cover when John Kennedy was assassinated.
At Newsday, Mike, became, among other things, a feared and celebrated movie and food critic, and his columns on pacifism became a book, “A Dove in Vietnam.” Noticing the formulaic success of Jackie Susann and others who did well with badly written potboilers, he corralled 26 of his co-workers to each pen a chapter (if it was too good it was sent back) about a slutty housewife, which became one of the world’s greatest literary hoaxes, “Naked Came the Stranger.”
Dad turned his talent toward health and medical writing, following French doctors to the Bahamas where they pioneered radical work with placentas and chicken eggs to decode the secrets of youth. He hobnobbed with Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dear Abby and Masters & Johnson.
Pat and Mike, together and separately, loved the world and the world, and its beautiful people lusted right back after them. There were parties with movie stars, bestselling writers, diplomats, beautiful wives. There’s a picture of my cousin Sean as a baby, delighted at being tossed in the air by Jack Kerouac.
I remember sitting at their regular poker game, too young to get the jokes but laughing anyway. Cigar smoke, gin and beer. A rotating cast of broken geniuses.There was Uncle Speed, a craggy old fisherman who lived near Mike’s Northport home. Perpetually tanned, big-eyed, big-haired Stella, a chain-smoking divorcée with a perpetually tan décolletage.
In 1978, Pat and Mike became the first two brothers in history to make the New York Times’ bestseller list. Dad had co-written “The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise,” which prompted America to eschew fats and sugar for high complex carbohydrates and lean meats. Mike penned porn star Linda Lovelace’s biography, “Ordeal,” hailed as a feminist tome that shed light on the particular perils of sex work.
Anything good comes with a price. Dad died in 2003, overweight and losing a battle with diabetes, after he threw a blood clot from a knee replacement he probably shouldn’t have had. Mike was rendered speechless by a series of strokes and lived his last few years in a nursing home, where he could barely feed himself. My cousins and I recount the laughing, the scandals, the ribbing that never crossed the line to being mean-spirited. On Thanksgiving, we cry and howl in the way that only Irish cousins can do when they’re together.
There is a picture of Mike and Pat that ran in People magazine when they were on the bestseller list together that I keep on my office wall, wherever I live. They are sitting, crossing arms, typing on each others’ IBM Selectrics. Twinkling, confident, sharing a private joke. It is a snapshot of our family’s invincibility. I would hope that in the event of a fire I’d remember to take the picture with me on my way out the door, but I know in reality, people take meaningless things when they panic, like a sweater or the bottle of detergent they just bought but haven’t put away.