Chapter One: “May I have your daughter’s hand in marriage?”
When the TWA pilot landed the non-stop flight from Kennedy Airport to San Diego, a sense of foreboding would have been appropriate given the task at hand. The task at hand was to ask Raymond J. Bass, a prominent engineer, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I was cavalier about the difficulty of the task for a number of reasons none of which hold up to scrutiny 37 years later. If I knew then what I know now,….
I have no idea whether the benefits of hindsight would have changed my behavior in 1981. I was in love. After months of careful consideration, smart, beautiful, elegant Diana had decided to marry me without reservation.
At the airport, Diana picked me up in her mother Helen Brunskill Bass’ patently expensive automobile. Helen was in the hospital in La Jolla being treated with what her oncologist described as “experimental” chemotherapy for inoperable lung cancer. From early December through late February, I had been at the other end of the telephone. Diana called most nights for lengthy and emotionally laden telephone calls. Diana’s planned visit to her parents had turned into a death watch.
I had accurately predicted the reality that in less than two months Helen–my prospective mother-in-law whom I would shortly meet for the first time that Friday afternoon–would be dead. In retrospect this proved helpful to my securing a favorable response to my request that Diana marry me.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, on bended knee I had surprised Diana, her cat Zookie, and indeed myself by gazing up at her from the kitchen floor of the apartment on Capitol Hill where Diana and I had lived together for two years. My hesitancy had been reinforced by the fact I had proposed while unemployed. I was hopeful yet still searching–not exactly the best position in which to offer the sharing of my life with an international economist whose job paid well and who wondering how I was able to purchase champagne from Diana did ask, “What is the special occasion?”
Perhaps, Diana’s favorable reply nearly four months later would not have been had my reversal of fortune not been so promptly dramatic. I did not have a ring in hand when proposing. The nature of the celebratory pub crawl that followed her Valentine’s Day card reading: “Yes, yes, I will”–sunset over the Gulf & Western building, vodka and caviar at the Russian Tea Room and a catalog of expensive purchases culminating in sunrise over the East River and breakfast at the UN Plaza Hotel–would not have been as ebullient were I not able also to purchase an engagement ring on Fifth Avenue after a visit to Tiffany’s had proved a disappointment from which we rapidly recovered at Bucherer’s where the Swiss jeweler then had an impressively sedate shop across the street.
Diana and I arrived at Helen’s hospital room where the dramatically beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean briefly distracted. Clad in an elegant red robe, Helen flirted with me displaying her lovely legs while she sorted on her bed costly antique silver flatware to be deposited in her safe deposit box. Helen had made it clear to Raymond he was not to touch the silver labelled for distribution to each of her four children. By comparison to Diana’s parents, my sudden rags to riches saga indicated I was a parvenu in my brief pretense at extravagance.
My ability to spend freely was based on a multi month gig writing a report on South Africa for the Rockefeller Foundation chaired by the head of the Ford Foundation, easy credit and New York City’s then down-on-its-heels reality where expensive attractions were then obtainable on what later appeared to be bargain basement prices.
At that moment by her bedside, Helen had made clear I was a figure of no importance as if I were an orderly temporarily present never-to-be-seen-again and thus permitted to overhear because it did not matter what she said in my presence. What she said–reinforcing the information Diana had imparted during pillow talk–was Raymond had already “pissed away” (as Helen put it) the fortune he had inherited from his father. Now, if she was not careful, she angrily announced she would do what she could so he would not be able to dissipate the fortunate her father had left her. A carefully constructed trust fund (prepared by attorneys who knew what they were doing) was intended to insure when Raymond followed her in death, their children would still be able to inherit something.
All this was revealed within 15 minutes of meeting her followed quickly by intense exhaustion from the chemotherapy that had caused her to be bald and caused her to neglect to her acute embarrassment the well-constructed wig that had slid slightly to the right of her head.
The next stop (without sufficient pause for Diana and me to recover from the hospital scene) was a short drive away to the Bass home in La Jolla where I quickly found myself alone in my prospective father-in-law’s study.
[To be continued.]
אם אין אני לי מי לי
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